The story of how Martin McGuinness allegedly lured Derry IRA informer Frank Hegarty back from England, promising his mother – on bended knee according to accounts – that he would not be harmed, only for Hegarty to end up on a lonely country road with a bullet in his head has been told here, here, here and here.
Doubtless it will figure again in the course of the Presidential campaign and will be used by his opponents and enemies as evidence of the man’s flawed character and unfitness to represent the people of Ireland in the Phoenix Park.
I am not going to rehearse the story here but I thought it might be useful to place the McGuinness-Hegarty tale in the context of the time it happened, 1986, and the politics of the then IRA leadership. That way it might be possible to understand why it happened.
The story begins in February 1978 when Gerry Adams was arrested and charged with IRA membership just a few days after the awful La Mon tragedy when a botched firebombing of the hotel on the outskirts of east Belfast killed twelve people, all Protestants, who were incinerated to death, and injured thirty more, some horribly.
The move against Adams was done to placate angry Unionist public opinion, understandably, but the charge of IRA membership was impossible to sustain – short of self-incrimination membership charges were never successful. But it did keep Adams off the streets for the best part of a year. He had been released from Long Kesh a year or so earlier and had set about implementing the re-organisation he, Ivor Bell, Brendan Hughes and others had plotted in jail. So placing him in the remand wing of Crumlin Road jail removed a key player at an important moment.
Changes in security policy introduced after the lengthy but ineffective ceasefire of 1974/75, especially the use of Castlereagh interrogation centre, had brought the IRA to its knees and close to defeat. Adams’ re-organisation, principally the introduction of a new Northern Command, was beginning to revive the IRA when La Mon happened.
With his arrest Adams automatically lost the post of Chief of Staff, which he had just taken from Seamus Twomey, and so Martin McGuinness, then Northern Commander, replaced him. The subsequent three or four years were to provide dramatic evidence that the IRA was indeed back in business and while not the force it had been in 1972, it was nonetheless strong enough to sustain the ‘long war’ crafted in Long Kesh. It was during these years that the rank and file trust in the Adams-McGuinness leadership was created, a trust that would prove so valuable when the peace process began.
By the summer of 1982 however the IRA was set on a different path. The hunger strikes of 1981 had created an opportunity for Sinn Fein to enter electoral politics. Owen Carron had replaced Bobby Sands as MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone, a council seat had been won in Carrickmore, Co. Tyrone but the big test, Sinn Fein standing in a Northern Ireland-wide election, was yet to come. That October it did when the British held elections to a new putative power-sharing Assembly, a body doomed to failure by the result which saw Sinn Fein win ten per cent of the vote and stun the Irish political and media establishment.
Martin McGuinness badly wanted to stand in that poll. He knew he was popular enough in Derry to win a seat and such was the level of post-hunger strike Nationalist anger in the city that he might even give John Hume a scare. The problem was that he was Chief of Staff and others on the Army Council bridled at the thought of their commander holding a seat at Stormont, even on an abstentionist basis.
So McGuinness was obliged to give up the post, handing it to Ivor Bell, one of Gerry Adams’ closest colleagues in the Belfast IRA. Less than a year later however Bell was also arrested and briefly held on charges based on evidence given by Belfast Brigade supergrass Robert ‘Beano’ Lean. Although Lean later retracted, Bell lost the Chief of Staff job which went to Aughnacloy man, Kevin McKenna. (A few years later Bell was forced out of the IRA altogether when his unease at Sinn Fein’s political direction and anger and suspicion at the deprioritisation of the IRA combined to persuade him to launch a tilt at Adams which failed). It is around this time that the Frank Hegarty story really begins.
During his tenure as Chief of Staff, Ivor Bell had dismissed Frank Hegarty from the IRA. A member of the organisation since the early 1970’s, Hegarty had risen to the post of Northern Command Quartermaster (QM) by 1982, a significantly important job. But he was also having an affair with the wife of a soldier in the Ulster Defence Regiment, the mostly Protestant militia created in 1970 to replace the B Specials. Someone in the IRA found out about Hegarty’s dalliance and reported him. Clearly his liaison made him vulnerable to blackmail and since he was now regarded as a potential informer Hegarty had to go.
Some time after that Hegarty was approached by the Force Research Unit (FRU), a British Army agent-running unit with headquarters at Thiepval Barracks, Lisburn and persuaded to rejoin the IRA which he did. How no red flag was raised in the IRA at Hegarty’s return would become one of the divisive issues in the affair, especially as he also managed to inveigle his way back into the Northern Command quartermaster’s department.
The Force Research Unit had ambitious plans for Hegarty telling him, as the IRA learned when they eventually interrogated him, that they wanted him to rise as high as he could, even as high as Quartermaster General (QMG). The FRU would remove his bosses, one by one, to facilitate his ascent.
By the end of 1985 Hegarty had been seconded to work on attachment to the QMG’s department to help shift weapons which were beginning to arrive from Libya. A year or so earlier Libyan Intelligence and the IRA had struck an audacious and ambitious deal. The Libyans would supply hundreds of tons of weaponry and millions of pounds if the IRA pledged to make life for Mrs Thatcher’s government uncomfortable, something the IRA had no difficulty agreeing. It was Libya’s revenge for the expulsion of their diplomats after the shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher while the IRA then laid plans for a major military offensive, based on the Vietnamese ‘Tet’ offensive, designed to sicken British public opinion with Northern Ireland and perhaps force the British to take counterproductive security measures such as internment.
Hegarty was part of a squad that moving some 80 AK-47’s smuggled in from Libya in August 1985 to dumps in the north-west. The weapons were stored in two temporary dumps in Roscommon and Sligo when they were discovered. The Garda Special Branch were ultimately responsible for everything that happened afterwards. Eager for a coup against the IRA the Garda insisted on raiding the dumps, ignoring British advice to ‘jark’ the weapons instead, that is bug them so they could be followed to their destination.
Hegarty had been told that the weapons had come from Europe and the presence of some Belgian rifles in the dumps seemed to authenticate that. Nonetheless British & Irish intelligence had come very close to discovering the Libyan arms smuggling venture at a very early point.
Realising that his past expulsion from the IRA would surface when the IRA investigated the arms seizure and that he would then be the prime suspect for betraying the weapons, Hegarty fled to England where MI5 housed him at a secure location. Homesick and missing his family Hegarty contacted them by phone, the Provos found out and at this point Martin McGuinness entered the story. He was enticed back home, naively believing McGuinness’ assurances about his wellbeing, interrogated by the IRA’s Internal Security Unit and then killed.
So why did Martin McGuinness go out of his way to cajole Hegarty back to Derry? It was, after all, a high-risk enterprise. He must have known that Hegarty had no chance of surviving and that he would be killed. He also knew that Hegarty’s family would be angry with him for so blatantly misleading them and that in all likelihood they would make their feelings known publicly and blame him for the killing. His name and reputation would be sullied for ever. He could have sent someone else to lie to the Hegarty family but he knew that Hegarty would accept assurances from no-one with less clout and authority in the IRA than himself. It was, we can then conclude, enormously important for McGuinness not just that Hegarty be brought back to Derry but that McGuinness be known as the man who brought him back. Again the question, why?
The answer might well lie in the intense rivalry and mutual dislike between Martin McGuinness and Kevin McKenna and the vying between them for the Chief of Staff job. According to IRA sources who knew the two men well and observed them in action, a deep loathing characterised the relationship.
For his part McKenna, a very private, publicity-shy figure, deeply resented constant media reports that McGuinness was the real Chief of Staff and more so that, as someone who was one of the more media-friendly Provo leaders, he had done very little to discourage that impression. McGuinness on the other hand, according to former colleagues, harboured ambitions to get his old Chief of Staff job back, especially so when the Libyan deal was struck. If there was an IRA ‘Tet’ offensive, Martin McGuinness wanted to be known as the man who led it. And McKenna stood in his way.
By late 1985, Kevin McKenna had been Chief of Staff for just two years but already there had been some bitter clashes between them at leadership meetings. At one Army Council meeting McGuinness launched such a powerful assault on McKenna’s stewardship of the IRA that it seemed as if the Chief of Staff might be forced to offer his resignation. Only the intervention of ‘Slab’ Murphy to show support for McKenna stopped that happening.
The Garda swoop on the Libyan arms dumps and Hegarty’s flight to England brought a new and deadly intensity to the rivalry. The first question was how on earth Frank Hegarty had got back into the IRA? Since both McGuinness and Hegarty were Derry men who had been in the city’s IRA units together in the 1970’s & knew each other, and since McGuinness was now Northern Commander and Hegarty was attached to Northern Command then surely, McKenna and others asked, McGuinness must have known that he had got back into the IRA?
The question was full of unspoken menace and danger for McGuinness. The IRA knew full well that when British intelligence wanted to infiltrate and advance agents inside their ranks they would sometimes use other agents to smooth their path. If McGuinness had allowed Hegarty back into the IRA knowing his past, then this made McGuinness a suspected British agent. McGuinness denied, according to these IRA sources, knowing anything about Hegarty’s re-instatement and initially said the informer must have been someone else (during his interrogation by the IRA Hegarty claimed that McGuinness had in fact known and approved his return to the ranks. This sparked another blazing row between McGuinness and McKenna but Hegarty’s assertion was unprovable).
One way of clearing his name, or at least going some way to doing so, would be if McGuinness were to play a leading part in luring Hegarty back to Derry and to his death. It wouldn’t settle the matter since the IRA was well aware that British intelligence would have little compunction in sacrificing one, now useless informer to protect another active and more valuable one but it would suffice until some more compelling evidence against McGuinness emerged, if it ever did.
None of this means that McGuinness was an informer. But it does suggest that he was frightened of being labeled one and that if he didn’t act to clear his name, his arch-rival Kevin McKenna would triumph and his IRA career might be so clouded with doubt and suspicion that it would be effectively over. As it was the Frank Hegarty affair killed off any chances that McGuinness would oust McKenna and replace him as Chief of Staff. McKenna would serve as Chief of Staff for another eleven years until he was replaced in 1997 by ‘Slab’ Murphy. He was the Provisional IRA’s longest serving commander. McGuinness survived and has prospered so well that he is now a contender for the Aras.
Postscript: Frank Hegarty’s FRU handler was Ian Hirst, better known as Martin Ingram and the man who outed Freddie Scappaticci, the notorious British agent in the IRA’s Internal Security Unit whose codename was Steaknife. Handlers often get very attached to their agents and there’s no doubt that Ian/Martin was deeply affected by Hegarty’s death. I have often wondered if his understandable anger at McGuinness for coaxing Hegarty to his death led him to make his own, later allegations that McGuinness worked as a double agent for MI6. Intriguing stuff, but will we ever get definitive answers to all these questions?